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'Breathe' is breathtaking

Orringer's tales are delightfully varied, layered

HOW TO BREATHE UNDERWATER, Stories by Julie Orringer; Alfred A. Knopf; 222 pages. $21.

One story is about a drug-addicted aunt taking her baby niece on an outing, another is about raising fish, and yet another is about a family who must eat Thanksgiving dinner with strangers. Julie Orringer's collection, "How to Breathe Underwater," is delightfully varied. Yet there are recurring themes.

Every story features an awkward girl. She may be an adolescent, making mistakes with boys. She may be a child, scared to tell her parents what is really going on.

There are other themes as well. Mothers are dying of cancer in several of the stories. In some, an older boy is cruel. Then there are stories about keeping Jewish rituals or Catholic rituals. Some of Orringer's stories are about being devout, others are about devotion gone awry.

Each story is layered, nuanced and marvelous.

Orringer is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford. But those are just academic honors. The proof is in her prose.

One of the nicest stories is "What We Save," a tale about a girl named Helena accompanying her mother on a trip to Disneyland. Helena's father doesn't come with them. Her mother has cancer. The mom and daughter are meeting the mother's old boyfriend, whom she's kept in touch with since high school. He's there with his wife and sons.

Orringer tells the story through the eyes of Helena, who is too young to understand everything but knows the day is somehow fraught with danger:

She'd saved strands of her mother's hair, fingernail parings, eyelashes, things she'd be able to touch six months or two years from now. She hadn't been able to say what she'd been dreading — not her mother's death, because that was beyond imagining. But as she watched her mother walk through the Magic Kingdom, eyes half-focused, arms limp at her sides, past six-foot-tall mice and cotton-candy vendors and pink benches, in the shadow of Brian Sewald and his family, Helena knew this is what she'd feared, her mother's decision to shrug off the things she'd saved. She wanted to throw herself down in front of her mother and scream. But her mother walked on, and Helena followed her.


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